Freelancer’s lament: When will the news biz figure out how to pay us?

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Bevil Knapp

That press war in New Orleans is a rarity at a time when newspapers are in decline, but the nation's appetite for news has never been greater.

That press war in New Orleans is a rarity at a time when newspapers are in decline, but the nation's appetite for news has never been greater.

As an aspiring journalist in the city of New Orleans, I have recently come to an important and depressing realization: I should have been born 80 years ago.

In those days — when gas was ten cents a gallon, Huey P. Long was fighting to “Share the Wealth!” and Bonnie and Clyde were still heading for their final shootout in north Louisiana — print journalists had it made.

Newspapers put out morning editions and evening editions. People read the paper to actually, you know, get the news — not just as a break from Top 10 binges on the Huffington Post, Esquire, Slate and Buzzfeed. People needed the paper and thus, one could actually make a decent living in the journalism industry. Demand was high, the jobs held some clout, and compensation was meted out accordingly. What we now call “content creators” — i.e., the rabid watchdogs and devoted story diggers —  were in demand.

Ah, what a time it was.

Unfortunately for me, I was born in 1989, just in time to latch onto a newspaper industry heading towards the terminal swoon that now engulfs it. I was still in my Pampers as the dot.com boom began eating around the edges of traditional newspaper revenue streams: first the classified ads, legal notices, sports scores, stock tables — and finally gorging on the news content itself, now regurgitated 24/7 in the vast upchuck that is the Internet.

As journalists, we now live in a bizarre and paradoxical world: It is easier than ever to get our content published — or should I say posted? — but it is more difficult than ever to get paid for that work. Weird, right?

Is the news industry dead? Hardly. Never in history have more people had access to news in all its varieties and consumed it more avidly. It’s just that the Hearsts and the Pulitzers, the Paleys and the Luces of traditional mass media have yet to find a viable business model for the Internet era — a way to monetize all those eyeballs riveted on the content we produce.

At this very moment, I could dash off a blog post about a palate-tingling muffuletta  and my 300-word ode to salami, pickles and olives could be read by any old 10-year-old Malaysian with a Wi-Fi connection. My mom in Boston, a friend in Israel, a random stranger in Albuquerque — all of these people now have the ability to read me.  This is an amazing phenomenon unprecedented in the history of mankind. (And you thought I was just some no-name schmuck with an appetite for Italian sandwiches.)

Alas, there’s a small problem: how to pay for that muffuletta. Instead of staff positions, we scriveners find ourselves increasingly adrift in the dangerous waters of freelance writing.

We — the freelance community at large — are floaters. We’re hired guns. Get in, produce a story, and get out. See ya next month — maybe. If we have something we’ll let you know. We work for no one. We’re our own bosses. Also our own secretaries, cafeteria line-workers and janitors.

During my undergrad time at Tulane, I wrote occasional stories for the Louisiana Weekly. As a student, it was nice to have the extra income but at 10 cents a word, it is now hard to pay for the juice to run my laptop. Sometimes articles require extensive research, back-grounding, interview time and the hours (about three for every hour caught on tape) of transcription.

None of this is reflected in the per-word pay rate — which is the same, whether I’m interviewing Ray Nagin — I wish! — or figuring out whether a New Orleans wacko named Lee Harvey Oswald really shot JFK. The system incentivizes longer articles with less research — not exactly a formula for concise, hard-hitting journalism.

In my endless quest for writing opportunities, I sent an email to virtually everyone at The Lens, hoping against hope for more chances to get my voice out there. When I received a couple of encouraging replies about writing some opinion pieces for the website, I was ecstatic. Maybe this was going to be my big break! A high-quality, experienced staff of journalists focused on the issues central to New Orleans! It sounded perfect.  We’d love to hear what you have to say, they said, but unfortunately we cannot pay for opinion pieces. We’re up against it, too.

Another brick wall to bang my head against.

In my short time as a full-fledged freelancer, I have written articles for the Times-Picayune, The Lens, CityBusiness, Louisiana Weekly, nolavie.com, policymic.com and examiner.com. I have taken notes for a business innovation conference and written newsletters for small nonprofits. One hundred bucks here, one-fifty there. Ten cents a word, two-hundred a piece, two dollars a Google+ update. It’s monetary madness!

I’ve got to be honest: It’s a bit disconcerting floating in this anarchical space of freelance writing. There’s little stability, little reliability. One week I could be doing interviews all day, not a second to breathe, and the next week I’m twiddling my thumbs with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s watching “Seinfeld” reruns.

This is sad — and not just for me. The world may survive without my titillating prose, but I know scarcely anyone my age who is pursuing a career in journalism. None of my friends, neighbors or relatives are heading into this field — and, really, can you blame them?

From a rational point of view, it’s hard to make the case that there’s a living to be made in freelance journalism. The work is fleeting, the anxiety is high, and the staff jobs are disappearing faster than the Louisiana coastline (which is worth the attention of more than a few bright minds, by the way).

It’s not exactly a model for attracting the best and the brightest. There are more contributors, bloggers and weirdoes than ever, producing mediocre work for no money. The sponge of the journalism industry is completely saturated, but with bilge.

Let’s get back to journalism that means something: content created by people who do this for a living, supported by organizations that can afford to pay for high quality reporting. What will it take? Exactly what it always took: shelling out a few quarters for the news you absorb along with your $3.65 grande latte.

Payment for content. No more free news. No more publishers giving it away in the vain hope of retaining a newspaper or magazine’s market share — or waiting for the Internet to go away, the comically horrendous mistake made by the newspaper industry all through the Internet’s first two decades.

The returns aren’t yet in, but paywalls, like those used by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and most of your better magazines, give some hope that solid journalism is a sustainable business proposition — not just an afterthought like the conditioner in Rob Ryan’s shower. Or maybe there’s a better way to monetize those eyeballs. I’m not a businessman. I’m a journalist — or at least attempting to be.

Compensation for a good or service. Is that so much to ask?

The problem is that before the newspapers and network channels came to their senses and realized they no longer had the monopoly status they once enjoyed in  many cities, they had carefully cultivated an audience opposed both by habit and by philosophy to the idea of paying anything at all for what it could find online.

How can I get angry at people for wanting free content? If you don’t have to pay for something — like, you know, good, hard news — why would you elect to pay?

Final question: How much longer can I wait for the industry to figure this out?

Freelance writer Sam Tabachnik is a recent Tulane graduate.

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